Two separate but interconnecting news stories this week: The announcement that mobile operators including Telefonica, Telenor, America Movil and Deutche Telecom all plan to bring Firefox OS to market in new smartphones; and HP finally sold webOS to LG for use in smart TVs.
The connection? webOS was based on the premise that beyond basic phone features, all content, games, media and services could and should be delivered through the web (as web apps), not with native applications installed on the phone. Firefox OS as a new player to the smartphone arena also thinks HTML 5 based web apps will unlock the walled gardens built by Google and Apple around Android and iOS, because you don’t need to go to an app store to use a web app.
This story is ultimately about control and ownership of services that mobile operators feel are being ceded to Google, Apple and OTT (over-the-top) content players. For mobile operators, having a customizable smartphone environment they can call their own, together with their powerful distribution channels places their brands back in the driving seat of service innovation.
So will developers jump on the HTML 5 development bandwagon, or stay hitched to iOS and Android? It turns out that many of the apps available today are coded as web apps in HTML 5, cunningly disguised as native apps and packaged for iOS and Android. For the developer community, this makes for easy portability between platforms. It’s also a strategy adopted by Blackberry for fast ramp-up of their app portfolio in Blackberry 10 OS. The challenge has been performance and integration – web apps run more slowly than native apps and historically, you couldn't access all the cool smartphone features such as multitouch. This has largely been addressed, but with the compromise that developers may need to modify code differently to access the “smart” features of different operating systems.
There have also been discussions about the low price point of Firefox OS devices allegedly making them ideal for South American and Asian markets. However, given shared components and specifications, it seems unlikely that Android smartphones would be any more expensive than Firefox OS smartphones (short of operator subsidy) meaning that the two operating systems will likely duke it out, market by market.
So the difference between webOS and Firefox OS and critically, the potential for Firefox OS success is largely about timing and messaging. Mozilla and Firefox OS are seen by mobile operators as a required strategic counter to Android and Apple hegemony. Further, Mozilla’s ethos is attractive in a way that HP never could be, primarily because mobile operators don’t believe that Mozilla will ever compete with them for brand status or control of the eco-system.